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Helping autistic kids to make friends

Parents of children on the spectrum are often very concerned that their child has "no friends" or very few friends. This post is about how we make friends and how they play 

The Right Kind of Friends

Kids on the spectrum tend to stick to only a few really close friends. They may have lots of acquaintances (and they may feel like they're all "friends") but in reality only a small number are real friends.

When it comes to spectrum friendships, like tends to attract like and you might be surprised when your child finds a friend that shows autistic traits, learning difficulties, co-conditions such as ADHD or traits such as anxiety. It's not that all kids have these differences, just that your child will seek out others who can best relate to them. 

Image by Frank Winkler from Pixabay

Of course, not all friends need to be neurologically similar to share characteristics. A good example of this would be children with "English as a second language". The fact that ethnic children often struggle with communication, puts them in a similar position and they can make very good friends. 

The size of the school also has a fair amount of impact on friendship. Putting your child into a larger school will increase the chance of having more than one like-minded friend per year/class than a smaller school will. 

Approaching Friends

Kids on the spectrum very rarely ever approach other children with the explicit aim of friendship. They may approach because they like, for example, a character on their T-Shirt or a toy that the other child is holding. Autistic children seem to favour "parallel play" where each plays alongside others with little interaction. 

Usually when friendships are formed, it's because another child has approached yours. 

If they aren't approached directly, kids on the spectrum will quite happily play alongside a group of other kids for years without becoming actual "friends". 

When an autistic child meets a particularly sociable child, they will often adopt their friends. This can have both good and bad effects, depending upon the qualities of the other children involved. Not all children will be accepting of parallel play.

Parenting kids with "friend" issues 

As a parent, you need to accept that your child will not be surrounded by friends. Don't worry too much about this, kids on the spectrum don't need heaps of friends like other children do. That's not to say that they don't get lonely but rather that they will be satisfied with less. 

Lower numbers of friends, makes for a less overwhelming sensory experience and allows kids to form closer, stronger bonds. 

If you are arranging an event, like a sleepover, it is wise to keep the numbers down to only a few friends and preferably one-on-one play. 

Team sports are often not good for friend-making. Sports where your child can operate semi-independently and without competition, such as scouts and karate are much better. 


Finally, parents need to teach their children about good behaviour and how to look after their meltdown activity so that they don't lose friends.

For example, if your child feels overwhelmed, then making an excuse to go to the toilet can reduce the sensory impact. If they do end up having a public meltdown, then it's best if it's out of sight of their friends.

It is also important to discuss your child's interactions with friends when possible as this will give you a clue about cues that your child may be missing. 

If your child seems confused about some playground behaviour, have them describe the event in as much detail as possible and ask about non-verbal things too. Role-play can often help them to understand what really happened and why other children react in unexpected ways.

Updated: September 2020 to correct language and formatting. 


Anonymous said…
Not to be hating, but you make so many generalizations in this post. Instead of saying, for instance, "Aspie children," implying [all] Aspie children, try "most/many Aspie children."
Gavin Bollard said…
That's a fair comment. I've always tried to be a little decisive in what is really a very grey area. I guess that's because I've read so many books where the author is unable to commit to a anything.

The result of this, of course, is generalization. I'm not in the medical profession and I don't mean to imply that every child follows the same patterns - because they don't.

In my earlier posts, I used to put disclaimers throughout but I was told that it was annoying - so I stopped.

I'll try to be a little more moderate in future.
RCFR said…
I'm glad for this advice. My son is 7 and just today we received the report saying he has asperger's (mild severity). This blog is extremely helpful because I want to help him grow, but I also want to love him just the way he is and not try to force him to change in ways that aren't realistic and necessary. For instance: summer day camp (recommended by a school counselor who wants him to work on pragmatics) vs. karate and swim lessons and play dates with friends? You answered my question. Thank you -- as a mom: thank you.
McMGrad89 said…
Thank you. I just put my child on a bus to church camp. I am hoping I have equipped her with the tools she needs to have a successful week.
This is an interesting topic for me. I'm a homeschool mom of an only (teenage daughter), who just recently met another homeschooled girl her age with aspergers, and they seemed to hit it off! My daughter, while she is fairly social and has good friends, often finds that it gets difficult to be able to spend time with them, due to their crazy schedules & lives in bigger families. This summer has been a bit of a lonely one for her. After reading this I plan to encourage my daughter to pursue a friendship with this new girl...perhaps it will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship!
Anonymous said…
My son has a friend who has this condition.My son comes from a non english speaking background and the other kid is an Australian.Two days ago my son told me that his friend calls him names and make him do the things that he is not happy with.He likes to do everything his way or 'No way' and my son is qute unhappy the way his friend has started to treat him.Basically my son is very afraid of his friend and do what ever his friend wants him to do and I am so concern about my sons welfare now.
Anonymous said…
My son has a friend who has this condition.My son comes from a non english speaking background and the other kid is an Australian.Two days ago my son told me that his friend calls him names and make him do the things that he is not happy with.He likes to do everything his way or 'No way' and my son is qute unhappy the way his friend has started to treat him.Basically my son is very afraid of his friend and do what ever his friend wants him to do and I am so concern about my sons welfare now.
Gavin Bollard said…
Your son is going to have to make the other boy aware of the fact that he doesn't want to do things. It's important that he knows how to stand up for himself. He'll also have to make it clear that he's not happy being called names.

At the same time, it's quite possible that the boy with Aspergers syndrome doesn't realise that he's not sharing or that he's being mean - so maybe once this is explained to him, things will settle.

If they don't settle, you'll need to make sure that the other boy's parents are asked to help their son to learn about friendship. The school may also need to be contacted if you don't think that enough is being done or if you think that your child is being bullied or in any danger.
Anonymous said…
This is such a hard thing my son has aspergers and he is now in 7th grade the children there are isolating him he has hung on the edges of a group of kids but never really had any friends. It has gotten worse as the group he has been on the edges of is starting to push him out due to one child in the group not liking him. So now he eats lunch by himself and he goes through his day in classes and doesn't talk to anyone it is breaking my heart. He has a brother and sister who are athletic and popular and I think that makes it even worse as he sees them interacting with their friends and he has none! I just don't know what else to do for him! I have contacted the school but not getting much help there.
Anonymous said…
This is a very useful article. I wish there had been as much of an awareness of Aspergers when I was a child, as my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood was very difficult for me and, due to a traumatic experience with a perverted board of ed child psyhcologist when I was in elementary school, I developed a lack of respect towards the psych field. The result: I never got diagnosed, and never got the help I needed, including maybe education for my own family on Aspergers so that I might have a better change at a relationship with them (as it is, they've always just been unfriendly, unwelcoming, judgemental, and even mocking towards me). I'm 38 years old now, and I think it's safe to say it's a bit late in the game to "come out," so to speak. I do continue to have some trouble in the workplace with being unable to confront abuse or dishonesty (including several instances of "peers" outright scheming because I simply did not fit in--not that I wanted to), and the crippling effects of finding myself in the midst of conflicts I had no part in. I wonder, if I'd had a head start with educating myself on Aspergers, if some of my coping skills might have been improved, and I might even be gainfully employed today, and contributing in some meaningful way with all of my intelligence, skills, loyalty and integrity--to some worthwhile organization that could use them.
Anonymous said…
I really don't like the way you refer to us as 'aspie kids'. I have Aspergers, and it really gets in the way. It hurts to have people speaking of something that can ruin people's lives, like it does mine, so casually
Gavin Bollard said…
Anonymous, you may notice that this post is date 2008, 5 years ago. While I have Asperger's syndrome myself and I like the term "Aspie", I have since discontinued its use here in favour of the longer "Person with Asperger's Sydnrome".

Obviously I can't go through old posts and change them but I do apologize for any offence.
Unknown said…
Or say "People with Aspergers," or "kids with Aspergers." I have done everything you recommend here and my son is worse at 12 now. We spent a lot of money keeping me home, put my career aside, and take our boy to every possible therapy. He's worse now. He comes off as unfriendly, bossy, controlling, mean. He does care because he wants friends. Any hope to share?

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